If you’re a yoga teacher, you’ve probably told your students—on many occasions—that yoga is a practice that utilizes breath and movement to help achieve a meditative state.
A typical asana class reinforces this description to some degree. After all, we remind our students to “inhale” and “exhale” while guiding them through flow sequences designed to coordinate breath and movement. We lead them through pranayama exercises, occasionally even remembering to tell them that “prana” is a vital, life-force energy that rides on the breath.
But we rarely, if ever, speak of the breath in explicitly spiritual terms: as a divine force with the power to connect us all together. I believe the time for that discussion is long overdue.
But you can’t teach what you don’t know. So before we can have an authentic discussion with our students, we first need to understand the spiritual power of the breath as teachers. Although a change in vocabulary and a slight shift in focus is required, this understanding cannot be obtained solely as an intellectual construct. Like the descriptions of enlightenment in Buddhist narratives, you have to experience it firsthand.
Our change in vocabulary begins by shifting our emphasis away from the words “inhale” and “exhale,” and toward consideration of the more exalted terms: “inspiration” and “expiration.” For breath itself is spirit (“espiritu santo”), with inspiration referring to the very first breath we take and expiration referring to the last.
Every breath between those two is a manifestation of the movement of divine energy through our bodies. As the English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock mused in his song “Luminous Rose”: “God finds you naked and he leaves you dying, what happens in between is up to you.”
Now consider the word “conspire,” which, despite its negative connotations in the criminal context, literally means nothing more than “to act in harmony toward a common end.” I’ll go so far as to suggest that “conspire” is the word we want to consider most thoughtfully, and perhaps the most exalted word of all. But we’ll come back to that.
With this basic shift in vocabulary and focus, where do we, as teachers, begin to actually experience the spiritual power of the breath? From my perspective, the ironic answer is that we must begin at the end—at the end of a class, during savasana.
Because if you pay attention to your students in savasana, here is what you might be lucky enough to notice:
When the lights go down, and the room gets quiet, and your students settle onto their mats exhausted, a beautiful thing often begins. One by one, the individual rising and falling of their rib cages begins to synchronize until the point that the entire room, including you, is breathing in unison—“breathing together.”
The entire room is engaged in a conspiracy, but a conspiracy of peace. As the teacher, you and you alone, get to bear witness to that beauty. It is solemn, and it is profound, and it is humbling.
Tell your students about this little miracle. It’s a good place to start the discussion.